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Kent Johnson, CEO, Highlights, to Samir “Mr. Magazine™” Husni: Our Belief Is That The Conditions In The World Today, The Pace Of Change And The Disruption, Makes Highlights Even More Relevant Than When We Were Founded 71 Years Ago… The Mr. Magazine™ Interview

September 14, 2017

The Story of Highlights Documented in the Movie 44 Pages

“I think my son at age 12 is pretty engaged across the spectrum of technology, but it was eye-opening to hear him say there might not be print when he becomes an adult. But I’m convinced there will be for my lifetime, particularly for kid’s magazines. I think we face different issues in some types of adult titles and different issues in current events and news than in true audience-based magazines. But at Highlights, we’re believers in print.” Kent Johnson…

Highlights has been around for 71 years, educating and entertaining children throughout generations. It is a legacy brand, certainly, but it’s also a brand that believes in creativity and innovation, evolving perfectly with the times, becoming globally successful, while remaining the beloved companion of children across the U.S.

A 90-minute documentary entitled “44 Pages,” chronicling the history, process and philosophy behind the Highlights brand has been released and the film premiered on the national film festival circuit earlier this spring and is now touring across the country making stops in select cities for screenings and events. It’s a poignant look at the family who brought us this great children’s educational tool, exploring the rich and tragic history of the magazine and brand.

Kent Johnson is the CEO and the great-grandson of the founders of the company, Garry Cleveland Myers and his wife Caroline Clark Myers. I spoke with Kent recently and we talked about the past, present and future of the brand. We even discussed the controversy surrounding the company’s diversity values and how they handled the situation. It was nothing less than you’d expect from a man who grew up on those same values; ones that are enveloped with ethics, fairness and the firm belief that children are the most important people in the world.

So, I hope that you enjoy this glimpse into a brand that has been around for a very long time, and has found that with age, not only does wisdom come, but also a layer of commitment and ethical truth that the company’s CEO is in perfect step with, the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Kent Johnson, CEO, Highlights.

But first the sound-bites:

On his then 12-year-old son’s question of will there be print when he is an adult, which was highlighted in the new Highlights documentary: Well, I had asked him what did he think it would be like when he was an adult, and he had the reaction that he wasn’t sure there would be print magazines. And so they took that quote from me during the filming where we talked about that because I think they liked the way that worked as the lead-in for the section they were going to do. It kind of portrayed some of the tension that our company and our digital partners have had about the role of print versus the role of digital.

On whether, at 71-years-old, he feels the magazine is still relevant and needed in these digital times: Yes. Our belief is that as we look out into the world, many of us feel that we’re living in times that are filled with some contention, trouble and challenges in our society. Our belief is that the conditions in the world today, the pace of change and the disruption, makes Highlights even more relevant than when we were founded.

On having a Ph. D. in physics and whether it’s the scientist in him or the passion for the brand that makes him believe it’s still relevant today: I think it’s both. But I think it’s also the data that we see, and maybe that’s the scientist side of me. We see and measure positive reaction; we see millennial parents; we see parents looking for meaning and connection, and we listen to the feedback. We don’t have advertisers, so the people we listen to, in terms of relevance, are our readers and our subscribers.

On the magazine’s rocky start: There was a rocky start from a business perspective, and I think that if it weren’t for my great-uncle getting involved and having an entrepreneurial inspiration, as well as many others. People who believed in their vision and invested money, and printers and vendors that were critical, the sales team; we probably wouldn’t have made it through the first half dozen years.

On whether he thinks that Highlights’ business model is still just as valid today as it was years ago: Our model includes extending well beyond magazines. And we tend to think of our magazines as products, but there’s also an audience associated with each of our magazines to the progression from infant and toddlers, up to preschool, and then our Highlights readers. So, we’re constantly working to think about new ways to serve those audiences and that might be with digital products that we hope our subscribers would buy, and we do sell digital subscription products. Or it might be with our clubs, where we have people join who want to go deeper into a specific content area or really want to get into puzzling as opposed to something else. To move beyond and extend from a general interest magazine.

On his role (other than CEO) within the company: I’m a relatively humble leader. I try to spend as much of my time as I can talking about our mission, our values, and what we’re trying to do. I think it’s critical that as a leader I’m working to ensure that we’re bringing really talented, skilled people into the company, but also making sure that people who come to work here share our beliefs and our mission. We want to have employees who in addition to being happy and successful in their jobs, we want them to gain an extra sense of satisfaction because of what we do for children. Because they tend to be happier here and more successful.

On the diversity controversy the magazine faced last year: We tend to focus on and think about how does a child see themselves in our magazines. What was interesting when we came under criticism around the issue of same sex, same gender parents, was when we really looked at our magazine, we don’t have many depictions of parents. We tend to focus the content from the kids’ point of view. In some ways, we may have been a little surprised that an adult issue was coming with such strength to us. On the other hand, I think what we learned was that the world has changed pretty quickly on these issues. And Highlights has tended to evolve and change with society and this may have been a case where we were slower than some would have liked to evolve.

On whether it’s easier or harder to take a centrist’s point of view in the magazine with the divisiveness that faces our country today: I’m not sure whether it’s easier or harder; it certainly feels like one can be criticized more readily today. I think for us when we did go through the controversy, one of the things that allowed us to not be too distracted was once we decided what we wanted to do, what was consistent with our editorial point of view, our values, and how we wanted to execute it, we were able to shut out the inputs from the outside world. We have an incredible staff, who’s judgement and decision-making I have complete trust in. So, once we knew what we wanted to do, we knew we were doing it with our audience, with children in mind, and we knew there was no way to make everyone happy.

On whether it’s easier or harder to remain ethical these days: I don’t know if it’s easy or hard, it’s just the way we’ve done things from the beginning. And it’s not really a daily choice, it’s the air that we try to breathe as an organization. And I think there are many organizations like that. It can be hard if you’re not rock solid in understanding your commitment to integrity and ethics. It can be difficult in a highly-pressured, highly-competitive world for some organizations.

On the four key values of the company: Our four key values as a company are teamwork, creativity, excellence and integrity. We also have a primary value, which is that children are the world’s most important people. And we carry that along as our primary value to remind everyone that when we look at our values or talk about them, that one is our primary value.

On anything he’d like to add: One thing that I’d like add is we’ve been having some neat success internationally. And a lot of our international success is related to English-language learning and content and products. So, it’s not all magazines. But I found it neat that I got to visit our magazine partner in China back in April. And we are now, I think starting next month, we are simultaneously publishing with our partner in China, both Highlights and High Five, the same issue in China in English, but we also record all of the audio and we print a special layer on the magazines. So, they have a talking pen. The kids in China are reading Highlights and High Five at the same time kids are reading them in the U.S., but they will have a pen where they can touch on anything and it will read them the article, because we’re trying to help them learn English.

On any plans to bring the magazine with the reading pen to the U.S.: Innovative, global partners; every time they do something different that surprises us or often inspires us, we do ask the question: is that something we should bring to us? Or how would that idea work in the U.S. market? And that is often digital, because we feel there’s a lot of great innovation with technology in our foreign markets. We don’t have a distribution approach associated with the talking pen for the U.S., but it’s on our minds to think about whether that would be a retail or a direct to consumer, or something that we need in our market. We don’t have any specific plans yet, but we’re always thinking.

On what he would have tattooed upon his brain that would be there forever and no one could ever forget about him: If it’s about me personally, I just hope people would read that I have had a positive impact on those around me. A positive impact on the world and a positive impact on the company I’m part of and positive impact on my own family. That would be my ultimate goal for someone to see on that tattoo.

On what someone would find him doing if they showed up unexpectedly one evening at his home: I’m a bit more of an introvert than my job typically requires. I like to try and unplug in the evenings, so you’d see me with my kids. You might see me reading with them or playing a computer game with them, or doing homework. You would probably see me with a glass of wine. If it’s hockey season, you might see me watching a hockey game. And I like to read a lot. If it’s late enough, you might catch me in my bed reading a book, trying to stay awake because it’s interesting or not.

On what keeps him up at night: It’s a good question, because I’m not the best sleeper. Mostly, I’m up at night thinking about all of the opportunities and all of the changes and pressures. So, I’m up a lot thinking about work and how do we adapt to the world that’s changing so quickly, and how do we deliver for our customers on the potential we have, just because of the Highlights brand’s heritage and our ability. We have more opportunities than we know what to do with, and that keeps me feeling a level of pressure and urgency and excitement that does interfere with my sleep.

And now the lightly edited transcript of the Mr. Magazine™ interview with Kent Johnson, CEO, Highlights for Children.

Samir Husni: I just finished watching the new “44 Pages” documentary about the creation of Highlights, and I was struck by the question your son asked you, “Dad, will there be a Highlights in the future when I’m an adult?”

Kent Johnson: Well, I had asked him what did he think it would be like when he was an adult, and he had the reaction that he wasn’t sure there would be print magazines. And so they took that quote from me during the filming where we talked about that because I think they liked the way that worked as the lead-in for the section they were going to do. It kind of portrayed some of the tension that our company and our digital partners have had about the role of print versus the role of digital.

I think my son at age 12 is pretty engaged across the spectrum of technology, but it was eye-opening to hear him say there might not be print when he becomes an adult. But I’m convinced there will be for my lifetime, particularly for kid’s magazines. I think we face different issues in some types of adult titles and different issues in current events and news than in true audience-based magazines. But at Highlights, we’re believers in print.

Samir Husni: The magazine is now 71 years old, and from the days when I was working with the company, I’ve always heard that you’re a mission-driven, family operation.

Kent Johnson: Yes.

Samir Husni: So, do you think that Highlights today, at 71, is still relevant and needed? And is it still a reflection of our times in this digital age?

Kent Johnson: Yes. Our belief is that as we look out into the world, many of us feel that we’re living in times that are filled with some contention, trouble and challenges in our society. Our belief is that the conditions in the world today, the pace of change and the disruption, makes Highlights even more relevant than when we were founded.

And I think part of that at 71 years, Highlights, even though the majority of people know us for our magazine and know that we’ve had the magazine for that entire time, we tend to think of ourselves as you said, as a mission-driven company, but we also think of ourselves as a company that’s focused on serving children and families. And we have a philosophy and a set of values that we think resonate as much today as they ever have with the aspirations that parents have for their children.

We think that people want to try to raise children to become their best selves, and that’s really what we focus on trying to do with our magazine, but also in our digital products, and across all of our other products throughout the company. We even like to talk that we’re not ultimately trying to create a magazine, it’s the experience that’s created when a child engages with the magazine that we care about. I like to think that what we’re doing is creating experiences that help children grow in positive ways.

Samir Husni: I know that your great-grandparents started the company, but something very few people may know is that you actually have a Ph.D. in physics. So, is it the scientist in you or the passion in you that makes you believe the magazine is still relevant?

Kent Johnson: I think it’s both. But I think it’s also the data that we see, and maybe that’s the scientist side of me. We see and measure positive reaction; we see millennial parents; we see parents looking for meaning and connection, and we listen to the feedback. We don’t have advertisers, so the people we listen to, in terms of relevance, are our readers and our subscribers.

I am passionate; we really try to recruit people to our company who are passionate about what we’re doing, who are believers when it comes to the impact that we have on children, and the positive impact that we have in society. But we’re also a group of data-driven, analytic folks who are looking at the data to say that we think we’re still relevant.

Samir Husni: Very few people, including myself, who thought that I knew the history of Highlights; I did not know that it had a rocky start. That after four years, they were losing money and getting ready to close shop. And then your great-uncle came into it. And the tragedy when your family was flying to New York in 1960, and the planes collided and everyone died on that flight. So, it wasn’t always a walk in a rose garden for Highlights.

Kent Johnson: I think that’s true. And I think that the founders started this company as their final chapter. They were 59 and 61 years old, and they were passionate about the mission. And they were exceedingly knowledgeable about parenting, education, literacy and children, but as we like to say when we’re looking back on history, maybe they weren’t as skilled as businesspeople as they were in child development and as educators and editors.

So, there was a rocky start from a business perspective, and I think that if it weren’t for my great-uncle getting involved and having an entrepreneurial inspiration, as well as many others. People who believed in their vision and invested money, and printers and vendors that were critical, the sales team; we probably wouldn’t have made it through the first half dozen years.

And then to be, as they show in the documentary, to be at the stage where, really at that point in 1960 being at half a million subscribers, it had become clear that this was going to be a viable, long-lived company. And to have a tragedy, which was a tragedy for the Columbus community and many, many families, but to have a tragedy where we lost three of our five senior executive, including two family members, was the kind of blow that I think you could easily imagine would do a company in and cause a family to falter.

But I think the reaction, as I look back, the non-family executives, the family members, our founders, who were living and still in the business, but now had lost their son and their president of the company, everyone decided that the company had to go forward. I think that level of commitment to the mission is what allowed us then to get through crises, but it is the kind of commitment that I was brought up in thinking, believing and understanding that we ought to have at Highlights. And it gives us a bit of resilience to get through whatever the crisis of the day, or the difficulties are. We kind of believe that we can and will keep going, no matter what.

Samir Husni: The magazine has never had advertising, so your source of revenue always depended on circulation and subscription. And for years, you were the most expensive children’s magazine on the marketplace. But now with the slew of new children’s magazines coming out, some with cover prices of $12; do you think that the business model that you follow at Highlights is still as valid as it was years ago? Or do you have any plans to change it or do something different?

Kent Johnson: That’s a great question. I think we have often been relatively high-priced compared to some competitors. But we are a mass market magazine, and it’s part of our mission, we want to reach as many children as possible here in the U.S. and around the world, so we try to price in a way that is a good value, given the quality of the content and the investment of the content, but is also enough that we’re able to continue to invest in the content. So, we believe that content has value and the experience we create with magazines justifies the expense. And that it’s a good investment for the quality of time it creates in a family and for a child.

That being said, our model includes extending well beyond magazines. And we tend to think of our magazines as products, but there’s also an audience associated with each of our magazines to the progression from infant and toddlers, up to preschool, and then our Highlights readers. So, we’re constantly working to think about new ways to serve those audiences and that might be with digital products that we hope our subscribers would buy, and we do sell digital subscription products. Or it might be with our clubs, where we have people join who want to go deeper into a specific content area or really want to get into puzzling as opposed to something else. To move beyond and extend from a general interest magazine.

And we’re also trying to go into retail, because we know that in addition to our subscriber base, many people are familiar and have positive emotional connections to the Highlights brand. And to be there in retail with Highlights’ branded products, books and activities, and a variety of categories gives them another way to engage with us. So, I think our business model is evolving, and will continue to evolve, but is evolving to try and really shift from people thinking they are a Highlights subscriber; we want people to say they are part of the Highlights family, and we want them to say they engage with Highlights products beyond the magazine.

Samir Husni: I understand that now Highlights is platform agnostic. What role do you play, besides CEO, when we look at the theme that Highlights will always be an evangelist for children, helping kids be happier and healthier; are you the high priest or are you the altar boy? (Laughs)

Kent Johnson: (Laughs too) I’m a relatively humble leader. I try to spend as much of my time as I can talking about our mission, our values, and what we’re trying to do. I think it’s critical that as a leader I’m working to ensure that we’re bringing really talented, skilled people into the company, but also making sure that people who come to work here share our beliefs and our mission. We want to have employees who in addition to being happy and successful in their jobs, we want them to gain an extra sense of satisfaction because of what we do for children. Because they tend to be happier here and more successful.

I go in and out of a lot of different things with the company, but mostly I try to fertilize and cross-fertilize aspects of our mission and values, and keep us all energized on the things that we’ve been doing for 71 years. We have an incredible energy right now about magazine publishing and I think that’s what you see in the documentary “44 Pages.” The passion and energy for something we’ve been doing for 71 years, but it’s new with every issue. And we’re having a blast on international, on digital, and doing apps. So, I try to keep the excitement and enthusiasm up, because I think that makes it a much more fun place to work. And it ultimately means we’ll create better things for kids, if those things are true.

Samir Husni: I have to ask the question about the diversity issues that took place last year, and some of the criticisms you received in the press regarding the LGBT community. Those who don’t study Highlights; I rarely look at an old issue of Highlights that I don’t see a white child, a black child, a woman, a man, a boy, a girl. Why do you think that for the magazine that has diversity as part of its DNA, you were in that maelstrom of controversy? How did you deal with it? And was it a big surprise to you that someone thought Highlights wasn’t diverse?

Kent Johnson: I do think that a sense of tolerance and a sense of inclusivity and the idea that as humans we always share more with each other than we differ; those have been core tenants that we at Highlights have always tried to focus on. These are human values that we believe in, and we’re proud of our heritage. We have had a lot of diversity within the pages of our magazine over the years. Actually, someone wrote a paper looking at our representation of women and minorities in roles related to science. And it was rewarding for me as a scientist to see the report card that we had been well ahead of the curve, in terms of going against stereotypes, with respect to math and science, because we do have a problem in the science industry with the diversity of folks who are successful and advancing in those careers.

We tend to focus on and think about how does a child see themselves in our magazines. What was interesting when we came under criticism around the issue of same sex, same gender parents, was when we really looked at our magazine, we don’t have many depictions of parents. We tend to focus the content from the kids’ point of view. In some ways, we may have been a little surprised that an adult issue was coming with such strength to us. On the other hand, I think what we learned was that the world has changed pretty quickly on these issues. And Highlights has tended to evolve and change with society and this may have been a case where we were slower than some would have liked to evolve.

We were surprised at the level of intensity of feedback. And I think it all happened at a time, and I think we’re still in this time, but at a high level of contention or divisiveness in our society. And the digital means of communication allow people to pour a fair bit of emotion or intensity in their communications. So, we were a little surprised at the intensity when that all happened.

Samir Husni: One of your editors told me once that Highlights tried to be like an island of clarity in the world that kids are living in. That reminded me of what the former CEO of the Wall Street Journal told me once, that the WSJ had been referred to as an island of clarity in a sea of madness when it comes to business. As we live in this, not only digital age, but with everything that is taking place in our country today, is it easier or harder for Highlights to take that centrist’s point of view and try to provide this island of clarity in a very divided country today?

Kent Johnson: I’m not sure whether it’s easier or harder; it certainly feels like one can be criticized more readily today. I think for us when we did go through the controversy, one of the things that allowed us to not be too distracted was once we decided what we wanted to do, what was consistent with our editorial point of view, our values, and how we wanted to execute it, we were able to shut out the inputs from the outside world. We have an incredible staff, who’s judgement and decision-making I have complete trust in. So, once we knew what we wanted to do, we knew we were doing it with our audience, with children in mind, and we knew there was no way to make everyone happy.

But I think it’s easier for a company like Highlights, being privately-held and committed to the audience and the readers, when we make our decision and make our judgements about what’s in the magazine, we go forward with those decisions. So, we will never sit in the middle of any discussion and try to make the calculation of what exactly does that do to our subscriptions or our marketing, or did people cancel because they didn’t like that decision.

I think as a company, we feel we have a responsibility to be comfortable in our own skin and own our decisions and implement them in the way that we think is best for children in our society. So, I think it’s hard because there’s more external pressures, but it’s also, I think, something that is our obligation as magazine publishers to make and commit to how we want to do things based on the expertise and experience of the team we’ve put together.

Samir Husni: And is it easier or harder to remain ethical? Somebody mentioned in the documentary that you’re one of the few remaining ethical publishing companies.

Kent Johnson: I would never try to compare us to others, because I think there are so many ethical people in the world. Integrity is one of our four key company values. So, for us we have all bought in that being ethical is not a choice, it’s part of who we are. When we make that level of commitment to being ethical, you realize that you have to own up that sometimes that means you’re willing to sacrifice things to be and strive to always behave in the most ethical way one can.

I don’t know if it’s easy or hard, it’s just the way we’ve done things from the beginning. And it’s not really a daily choice, it’s the air that we try to breathe as an organization. And I think there are many organizations like that. It can be hard if you’re not rock solid in understanding your commitment to integrity and ethics. It can be difficult in a highly-pressured, highly-competitive world for some organizations. We try to take it off the table and just say that first and foremost we have to do the right thing.

Samir Husni: You mentioned integrity and ethics, what are your other two core values for the company? You said there were four.

Kent Johnson: Our four key values as a company are teamwork, creativity, excellence and integrity. We also have a primary value, which is that children are the world’s most important people. And we carry that along as our primary value to remind everyone that when we look at our values or talk about them, that one is our primary value.

Those values really came out of a process where we discovered those and engaged our whole organization to define them. What was remarkable is that we went through that process recently, I had my cousin, Pat Michaelson, who is a granddaughter of the founders, to look at it and she said that was exactly what we’d been about since day one. I thought it was neat that today’s organization reflects in an ongoing, consistent way the values that we’ve had for 71 years.

Samir Husni: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Kent Johnson: One thing that I’d like add is we’ve been having some neat success internationally. And a lot of our international success is related to English-language learning and content and products. So, it’s not all magazines.

But I found it neat that I got to visit our magazine partner in China back in April. And we are now, I think starting next month, we are simultaneously publishing with our partner in China, both Highlights and High Five, the same issue in China in English, but we also record all of the audio and we print a special layer on the magazines. So, they have a talking pen. The kids in China are reading Highlights and High Five at the same time kids are reading them in the U.S., but they will have a pen where they can touch on anything and it will read them the article, because we’re trying to help them learn English. And it’s been fun to watch that business grow knowing that audio recorded and content created in Honesdale, Pennsylvania is appearing across China at the same time every month.

We’re printing them; we send the audio and they print a fifth layer that’s readable by a sensor in the pen, so it knows where your touching. They encode it and we record the audio and we’re printing and selling them vinyl copies for their growing subscriber base. We’re somewhat non-traditional as a magazine by going international, so we’ve had to find our way. A lot of our applications have to do with our core identity as a kid’s company and an educational company, so reaching English-language learning in many different ways, a lot of time digitally, but also in print around the world.

Samir Husni: Any plans to bring that reading magazine here?

Kent Johnson: Innovative, global partners; every time they do something different that surprises us or often inspires us, we do ask the question: is that something we should bring to us? Or how would that idea work in the U.S. market? And that is often digital, because we feel there’s a lot of great innovation with technology in our foreign markets. We don’t have a distribution approach associated with the talking pen for the U.S., but it’s on our minds to think about whether that would be a retail or a direct to consumer, or something that we need in our market. We don’t have any specific plans yet, but we’re always thinking.

I’ve tried to say to our company that we should be, not only global, in terms of our sales and distribution of product, but we want to allow being a global company to accept how we think about everything. So, more and more we think about our systems and our ways that we tag our content, or even some of our decisions about product development. We think they all have to at least be looked at through a global lens to make sure we’re doing the very best we can and serve kids all over the world.

Samir Husni: If you could have one thing tattooed upon your brain that no one would ever forget about you, what would it be?

Kent Johnson: I’ll answer that two ways. One; what I used to weave into speeches, and I still do, if someone ripped me from my sleep and said: quick, you have to tell me about the identity of Highlights for Children or the company, what matters? I always say there are three things: we’re mission-driven and for-profit, two – we’re always balancing the short and long-term time horizons, we’re always thinking both short-term and long-term, and three – we’re an ethical company.

If it’s about me personally, I just hope people would read that I have had a positive impact on those around me. A positive impact on the world and a positive impact on the company I’m part of and positive impact on my own family. That would be my ultimate goal for someone to see on that tattoo.

Samir Husni: If I showed up unexpectedly at your home one evening after work, what would I find you doing? Having a glass of wine; reading a magazine; cooking; on your iPad; watching TV; or something else?

Kent Johnson: I’m a bit more of an introvert than my job typically requires. I like to try and unplug in the evenings, so you’d see me with my kids. You might see me reading with them or playing a computer game with them, or doing homework. You would probably see me with a glass of wine. If it’s hockey season, you might see me watching a hockey game. And I like to read a lot. If it’s late enough, you might catch me in my bed reading a book, trying to stay awake because it’s interesting or not.

Samir Husni: My typical last question; what keeps you up at night?

Kent Johnson: It’s a good question, because I’m not the best sleeper. Mostly, I’m up at night thinking about all of the opportunities and all of the changes and pressures. So, I’m up a lot thinking about work and how do we adapt to the world that’s changing so quickly, and how do we deliver for our customers on the potential we have, just because of the Highlights brand’s heritage and our ability. We have more opportunities than we know what to do with, and that keeps me feeling a level of pressure and urgency and excitement that does interfere with my sleep.

Samir Husni: Thank you.

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